MassDevelopment marks 10 years at Devens

DEVENS – Federal, state and local officials joined residents and other visitors on the Devens Common to celebrate 10 years of development at the former Fort Devens.

Highlights on Tuesday included the placement of the first of many artifacts into a time capsule to be buried on the common. The very first item was a handmade quilt by students at Guild of St. Agnes.

Speakers included MassDevelopment Chief Executive Officer Robert Culver, MassDevelopment Office of Economic Development Secretary Ranch Kimball, Devens Historical Museum Executive Director Ian Meisner, and Devens Reserve Forces Commander Lt. Col. Caryn Heard.

“Ten years ago the Army handed over the keys to MassDevelopment to replace 7,000 jobs lost and make the (site) an economic magnet,” Culver said. “This celebrates all that has been done and what will be done. Recent developments demonstrate what a special plan this is.”

He noted that the common is a critical selling point to business, the award-winning Red Tail Golf Course is a strong draw and 200,000 visitors came in last year. More than $430 million has been invested in the past 10 years and the salaries of workers average $51,000, he said.

“Included is a major international pharmaceutical cooperation’s interest called Project Hummingbird.

Stay tuned for an anouncement sometime in June,” Culver said. “The Northeast Economic Development Association has named Devens project of the year for large-scale projects.”

MassDevelopment is “mindful of the honor we’ve got” and “humbled by the privilege to be able to do what we do,” said Kimball.

Devens employs 4,200, a $178 million payroll has grown to $220 million 10 years later and 2,100 acres of open space have been preserved, he said.

“Eighty-nine years ago Devens’ acreage was swamp and farmland. In 90 days, 10,000 workers transformed it into a facility for 40,000 soldiers, an engineering feat beyond all,” Meisner said. “For the next 79 years, Devens reinvented itself, serving one million soldiers between 1917 and 1996. We should all be mindful of the sacrifices made by soldiers, the workers and families, and of the tremendous gift from those who preceded us,” he said.

Heard said that in 1917 Camp Devens sent 100,000 soldiers to war and welcomed 150,000 home. It became Fort Devens in 1932. She described the Reserve Forces Training Area – formed April 1, 1996 – as an “Army flagship, premier training site” with 5,200 acres; 53 tenant organizations; 2,800 soldiers, sailors and Marines; and 134 facilities.

She noted a $91 million urban assault course is slated for opening in 2007.

“Just as our soldiers have a duty to our nation, our nation has a duty to those who serve, who have served, and who will serve,” Heard said.

Culver thanked Funeral Director Jack McGaffigan, of Pepperell, for providing the time capsule.

“The passing of 10 years has been incredible for me because I was there with a similar gallery then,” state Sen. Pamela Resor said.

“Ten years ago we saw the need for jobs most critical, and we were unsure of the job creation we’d see,” she said. “We look forward now rather than backward,” she said.

“Some very important decisions for the future will be coming up,” state Rep. Robert Hargraves said. “We look forward to (residents) making decisions based on the best interests of their towns.”

“To me Devens is a lot of things,” state Rep. James Eldridge said. “The communities of Ayer, Harvard and Shirley that have worked long and hard, the businesses that took a risk to stake down territory, the civic organizations like Loaves & Fishes and Sylvia’s Haven, and the media with Nashoba Publishing making the rally cry that Devens not be forgotten.

“It is the work of MassDevelopment. How hard it is to promote economic development while balancing environmental concerns, housing, education and leadership excellence?” Eldridge asked. “And Devens is the residents. No one knew what may be looked at, as a Devens or communities without representation. They have worked very hard on committees and boards and I give them my thanks and wish them well.”

Meehan remembered 1991 when there were four “diverse” communities involved, Ayer, Harvard, Lancaster and Shirley.

“Ayer’s unemployment was over 10 percent, and the last thing they needed to hear was the base closing,” Meehan said. “I remember Frank Hartnett, for you always visited with him for his perspective. He held people accountable. Thank you.

“When you get towns like Ayer and Harvard to sit down with different ideas and learn about each other it is wonderful,” he said. “I remember President Clinton and the Shriver Job Corps in 1994. There were 89 applicants, and the Oxbow National Refuge. When we’re finished, 5,000 acres will be turned over.”

Meehan noted transportation “successes” and defense business successes. He credited Culver and previous CEO Michael Hogan for creating a “model” for base closures.

“I tell senators and congressmen to look at Devens,” Meehan said.

“Whether in Washington or on Beacon Hill I’ve seen the partisan bickering that can jeopardize development,” Meehan said. “There isn’t a better example of leaders coming to the table and rolling up their sleeves to help create a public/private synergy that has created this.

“I salute all of you,” Meehan concluded. “Let’s use this as an example for the future. You can make a difference.”